Thursday 30 July 2020 10:00 am

Give people seeking asylum the right to work in Britain

Sophie Wingfield is director of policy at REC

The Prime Minister has said he wants the UK to build back better as the country and economy recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. 

That’s a worthy goal — and the good news is that there are thousands of people in our communities with a wide variety of skills who are desperate to help. They are entrepreneurs and accountants, businesspeople and carers, engineers, labourers, farmers and civil servants. 

But because they are seeking asylum, they are shut out of the solution.

Read more: It makes smart business sense to invest in the future of refugees

A report released today by a coalition of more than 250 organisations, from recruiters to economic think tanks, businesses to trade unions, refugee charities and faith groups reveals that banning people seeking asylum from working costs the UK taxpayer £98m every year. 

That figure covers lost tax and national insurance revenue, as well as the added cost of providing asylum support. But the true cost to the UK is much higher. 

Denying people seeking asylum the right to work starves the British economy of skilled employees and businesspeople. It results in our workforce being less diverse, meaning that we miss out on opportunities to innovate and be more competitive in the global market. 

We should also not forget the human cost. Denying asylum seekers the right to work actively harms them as individuals. It costs people their dignity and mental health, forces people into poverty, and blocks community integration.

A skills audit undertaken and published in today’s report reveals that one in two respondents had experience in jobs that would categorise them as key workers. They could have helped greatly during the UK’s early response to Covid-19. We should not pass up that opportunity again as we move into the next phase.

Most of us (71 per cent, according to a 2018 poll) want people to be allowed to seek work to support themselves and their families while their application for asylum is considered. But the current rules effectively force people who could be helping the UK economy to sit on their hands and live off the government allowance until they get refugee status.

This can be for long periods of time and serves no purpose — people who have come to the UK seeking safety must be given the opportunity to work.  

On this issue, the UK is an outlier. People seeking asylum are allowed to work in the United States, Canada, much of Europe and even Australia — the very country the UK Home Office looked to for inspiration on the new points-based immigration system. These countries recognise something that the UK has ignored: that asylum seekers have experience and skills that employers want and need. While the jobs market is tough right now, the UK often suffers from shortages in sectors like health, social care and IT. These are the diverse skills asylum seekers could bring to the labour market.

The public is on board, and so is the business community. In 2019, the Lift the Ban coalition polled more than 1,000 business leaders. The results were stark: two thirds said they backed the right to work for people seeking asylum; two thirds said they would hire someone seeking asylum if they were allowed; and two thirds said lifting the ban would help tackle skills shortages.

Of course, we cannot simply judge people seeking asylum by their value to our economy. Many have fled some of the worst violence and persecution imaginable. Some arrive on our shores tired and broken, in need of care and support before they need a job. Our primary responsibility must always be to make sure they are safe.

But for many of those seeking asylum, being able to work would do wonders for their rehabilitation — in the same way it could do wonders for the rehabilitation of the UK economy post-pandemic.

Giving asylum seekers the right to work is common sense. The government should seize this opportunity to let everyone contribute their skills and help the country build back better.

Read more: The future of the Covid generation rests on putting skills first

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.